1. Go Sensory
You probably know this already, but almost all people with autism have specific sensory preferences or aversions. This might be an aversion to bright light or loud noises. Or it might be a love for certain textures or movements - rocking forwards and backwards is a common one.
If you’re supporting someone with autism to exercise, it’s a great idea to have a bit of a sensory profile - what sensations do they like? what makes them want to crawl up and hide away?
Many people with autism love water, so swimming and hydrotherapy would be perfect for such people! If you work with a person’s sensory preferences, you’ll find that exercise will be easier and more enjoyable.
2. Use Visuals
Many people with autism have impaired communication skills. I’ve worked with lots of people with a dual diagnosis of intellectual disability and autism. For these people, your complex, wordy, verbal instructions often go straight over their head! It’s a lot to process. Using visual images is a great way to cut through all of this. I also use a lot of demonstration and physical gestures to complement what I say.
Real life example: I once worked with a young man with intellectual disability and autism. He was so good with visuals, that when I tried to teach him to do a side plank (see picture), he copied every body positioning to a tee - even the hand on the hip.
3. Be Concrete
People with autism tend to struggle with understanding abstract ideas. A instruction like “stay at the wall” whilst in an aquaerobics class may be confusing, while saying “touch the wall until I say you can go” is much clearer. Using clear external cues can be better for helping someone with autism to exercise.
For example, if you are teaching a squat, instead of saying “stick your bottom out more”, you can use a rubber ball and say “your bottom has to touch the ball”.
Real life example: I created a visual exercise program for a boy with autism. In the first column was the exercise picture. In each of the next two columns, there was a picture of a flag. When he finished each set of the exercise, he moved the picture to the flag to indicate “finish”. After a while, he got fitter and so I encouraged his mum to do 3 sets of each exercise, instead of 2. It didn’t work though! For him, the picture clearly said '2 sets'. He couldn’t understand that he could just do an extra set - even if it didn’t match his visual program! The solution wasn't difficult - a new visual program with three flag columns!